A Sample Critical Essay on Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises'

Writing About Fiction

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). (Anthony Potter Collection/Getty Images)

In this short critical essay (approximately 1,000 words) about Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises (titled Fiesta in Great Britain), the author demonstrates how minor characters shed light on some of the conflicts experienced by the protagonist, Jake Barnes. The title of the essay offers an allusion to the last line of John Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness": "They also serve who only stand and wait." Notice that the essay is based on a close reading of the novel and does not rely on secondary sources.

'They Also Serve . . .': The Waiter in The Sun Also Rises

A Sample Critical Essay on a Novel

1 To keep Jake Barnes drunk, fed, clean, mobile, and distracted in The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway employs a large retinue of minor functionaries: maids, cab drivers, bartenders, porters, tailors, bootblacks, barbers, policemen, and one village idiot. But of all the retainers seen working quietly in the background of the novel, the most familiar figure by far is the waiter. In cafés from Paris to Madrid, from one sunrise to the next, over two dozen waiters deliver drinks and relay messages to Barnes and his compatriots. As frequently in attendance and as indistinguishable from one another as they are, these various waiters seem to merge into a single emblematic figure as the novel progresses. A detached observer of human vanity, this figure does more than serve food and drink: he serves to illuminate the character of Jake Barnes.

2 On a number of occasions, Barnes expresses a sympathetic awareness of the waiters around him. For instance, after dining with Lady Brett Ashley and the count at the restaurant in the Bois, Barnes recognizes that the two waiters standing by the door "wanted to go home" (61). Likewise, on the French train crowded with pilgrims, Barnes discourages Bill Gorton from teasing the overworked waiter, saying, "No.

He's too tired" (88). It is fitting that Barnes should identify, at least implicitly, with waiters. Like them, he is a reticent and passive observer, carrying out routines with emotional detachment. For the waiters, of course, such detachment is merely professional decorum. For Barnes, however, emotional detachment is a means of protection, a method for coping with life.

3 One way that Barnes maintains his composure is to substitute objective observations for emotional responses. His ritualistic descriptions of waiters doing their work often serves this purpose, as in the conclusion to the scene in the Bar Milano. Ignoring the warnings of Montoya, Barnes has set Brett up with Pedro Romero:

When I came back and looked in the café, twenty minutes later, Brett and Romero were gone. The coffee-glasses and our three empty cognac-glasses were on the table. A waiter came with a cloth and picked up the glasses and mopped off the table. (187)

By focusing on this image of cleansing and reordering--of a waiter clearing up the mess made by others--Barnes displaces whatever feelings of remorse, shame, and envy he may have.

4 On occasion, however, a waiter may be seen to dramatize rather than displace Barnes's feelings.

After leaving the Bar Milano, Barnes goes to the Café Suizo, where he is knocked out cold by Robert Cohn. After being revived, he again offers a parting view: "I looked back at them and at the empty tables. There was a waiter sitting at one of the tables with his head in his hands" (192). As an image of weariness, this is hardly unusual: it's late and the waiter is tired. But the image of head in hands may suggest something more, particularly as observed by a man whose own head is "a little wobbly" (192). It may be seen as a tableau dramatizing Barnes's own exhaustion, pain, shame, and despair.

5 For the most part, waiters function silently throughout the novel as disinterested witnesses, emblems of routine maintenance, and correlatives to Jake Barnes and his suppressed emotions. In one important scene, however, immediately following the death of Vincente Girones, a waiter steps out of his conventional role, sits down beside Barnes at the table, and offers this choric commentary: "A big horn wound.

All for fun. Just for fun. . . . That's it. All for fun. Fun, you understand. . . . Right through the back. A cornada right through the back. For fun--you understand. . . . You hear? Muerto. Dead" (197-98). It is not just the repetition and the echo of "cornada" in this speech that recall the prayer of the older waiter in Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." More significantly, it is the weary but forceful note of human concern in the face of human absurdity that links the two waiters. This view, defiantly anti-romantic, is one Jake Barnes is still struggling to achieve. When asked by the waiter what he thinks of all this "fun," Barnes can say only, "I don't know" (197).

6 Appropriately, then, it is again a waiter who signals a possible change in Barnes's life. The last part of the novel opens with another image of cleansing, waiters "sweeping the streets and sprinkling them with a hose" (227). And it is a waiter's actions that dramatize the end of the fiesta:

A waiter wearing a blue apron came out with a bucket of water and a cloth, and commenced to tear down the notices, pulling the paper off in strips and washing and rubbing away the paper that stuck to the stone. The fiesta was over. (227)

The vigorous verbs in this description reflect Barnes's determination that certain things in his life were over, that he had reached "the end of the line" (239), that he was "through with fiestas for awhile" (232). Perhaps he had learned something about friendship, about "valuable qualities," something waiters had always understood (233).

7 In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway has countered the lost generation of main characters with the emblematic figure of the waiter, whose voice is as old as the book of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity" (The Holy Bible Eccles. 1:2). The wisdom gained by the waiter through disinterested observations of human folly may lead to the strength that can help him endure. We should remember, after all, that the novel's single representative of moral valor, Pedro Romero, "learned his English as a waiter in Gib" (242).


Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." Winner Take Nothing, New York: Scribner's, 1933.

---. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner's, 1926.

The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1999.

© Richard F. Nordquist

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Nordquist, Richard. "A Sample Critical Essay on Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises'." ThoughtCo, Feb. 29, 2016, thoughtco.com/critical-essay-sun-also-rises-1690514. Nordquist, Richard. (2016, February 29). A Sample Critical Essay on Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/critical-essay-sun-also-rises-1690514 Nordquist, Richard. "A Sample Critical Essay on Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/critical-essay-sun-also-rises-1690514 (accessed November 19, 2017).